PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Steve Donahue took the route of so many unemployed coaches and ditched the clipboard for a television headset. Working as an analyst for a Temple-Penn game last season, Donahue saw a Quakers team far removed from their years as the class of the Ivy League.
“They played really well, had the game for a while and then it snowballed,” he said. “They hung their heads and you could tell they thought, ‘We’re losing this one with 10 to go and down two.”
Penn clearly needed a new direction after years of trying to sell the program on the leadership of former great players, the Big 5 and the venerable Palestra arena.
Donahue needed a professional rebirth as well, his coaching career stalled after a failed stint at Boston College.
Once one of the darlings of college basketball when he led Cornell to the Sweet 16 in 2010, Donahue is now in charge of trying to revitalize both his career and the Quakers.
“We’re not where we once were,” Donahue said. “We’ve got to be creative and absolutely outwork everybody in this league.”
Donahue, hired in March, has infused a dose of modern thinking into an Ancient Eight program.
“I’m not going to be an old-school guy,” the 53-year-old Donahue said.
- He treated each Quaker like the patient in the game Operation, poking, testing, measuring the body so much - even if he’s really interested in probing the inside of their heads. Donahue took note of the demoralized crew from last season and added a sports psychologist to the program. He lets the team speak freely and honestly in front of the psychologist, treating sessions as a form of family counseling.
- He’s added 1-ounce GPS devices to a warmup shirt under practice jerseys that measures heart rate, tracks workload and identifies body parts where players are strong or need improvement. The Quakers have apps on their mobile phones that monitor sleep patterns and early results weren’t terribly surprising - college kids are up late, so Donahue scrapped morning practices.
“Our kids’ biological clock at 18 tells them to go to bed at 2 a.m. and get up at 10,” he said. “We gear our workouts toward that.”
He bolstered the investment in sports science, nutrition and upgraded the weight room.
- Donahue brought analytics to Penn and has charted every live action shot in practice or drills. He keeps tabs on dribble-to-pass ratio and ball reversals and asks his players, “Do you think that’s a 95 percent shot?”
He became a deeper thinker of analytics during a year off that also included tours of various college and NBA practices. He sought input from Washington coach Randy Wittman, Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti and Boston coach Brad Stevens, among others, and toyed with the idea of becoming an NBA assistant coach. Working with Dick Stockton was a thrill, but it couldn’t compare to standing inside the Carrier Dome before a tournament tipoff.
It couldn’t match the lure of coming back to Philly.
Donahue grew up in the area, played at Ursinus College, and had assistant coaching stints in the Philadelphia Catholic League and at Philadelphia University.
He first called the Palestra home from 1990-2000 when worked as an assistant under Fran Dunphy and helped lead the Quakers to six Ivy League championships, four undefeated conference seasons and a 182-91 record.
“I was never thinking, man, I’d love to be the head coach at Penn,” he said. “It felt too big of a dream to think that I could succeed Fran. I never thought he would leave.”
Donahue took the head coaching job at Cornell in 2000 and interviewed for the Penn job when Dunphy left for Temple in 2006.
After Cornell’s 2010 run, Donahue was hired away by Boston College. After a 21-win season and an NIT berth in his first year, Donahue never had a winning record in the next three seasons and was fired after an 8-24 mark in 2013-14.
“I loved Boston, I loved the experience, my family loves it, they’re mad that we’re moving, but college basketball is not a priority,” he said. “It’s nowhere near one. It’s four pro teams and college sports do not matter.”
Penn, last in the Final Four in 1979, was 9-19 under Jerome Allen last season and has had one winning record since its last NCAA tournament berth in 2007.
Donahue has met with students, the band - he’s even invited student newspaper writers to sit in on coach’s meetings - to spark sagging interest and dwindling attendance at the Palestra.
“You’ve got to get them to feel invested in the program,” Donahue said. “They do that when they start liking the people we have in our program.”
Step 1 comes Friday in the season opener against Robert Morris.
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